Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, September 27, 2000
Study confirms the importance of children's early relationships


Children who begin kindergarten without adequate social and emotional development are often not successful in the early years of school and can be plagued by behavioral, emotional, academic and social problems that follow them into adulthood, according to a new report.

Lynne Huffman, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford's School of Medicine, wrote one of the two papers summarized in the monograph, A Good Beginning: Sending America's Children to School with the Social and Emotional Competence They Need to Succeed. Together the two papers review risk factors for early school problems facing children and survey federal programs that address these factors, ultimately pointing out gaps between research and policy.

The report, released early this month by the National Institute of Mental Health, identifies numerous risk factors that predict a young child's difficult transition into kindergarten and first grade. "Several are long-established and well-described factors that have some predictive value but that we can't change, while other risk factors appear to be causal and can be affected by appropriate interventions," Huffman said. The report list includes low birth weight and other physiological or medical problems, single-parent households, low level of maternal education, parental substance abuse, problematic parenting practices (e.g., maltreatment, inadequate supervision), the low socioeconomic status of the family, immigrant or minority status, as well as the characteristics of kindergarten and first grade classes (e.g., large class sizes, few parent-teacher meetings).

"In the past we've focused on identifying markers of risk that were not malleable -- there was little way to reduce the risk," reported Huffman. "The real discovery here was in finding where treatment is viable, where we can help families."

Of particular interest to the report's authors were a group of risk factors that, when changed, do alter poor early school outcomes. "Several of these risk factors for early school problems appear to be related to the quality of a child's relationships," said Huffman. "What was surprising was the level of risk associated with kids who have difficulty establishing warm, positive relationships with peers, or with their early teachers, or in certain parental relationships. These are particularly children who experience harsh discipline -- an authoritarian style of parenting -- or else inadequate monitoring by parents who don't seem to know where their children are or what their children are doing. These are all red flags for kids who have problems in school."

The report identifies a potential chain of events for a child's success or failure, based on "social and emotional school readiness." A school-ready child is described as "confident, friendly, has good peer relationships, tackles and persists at challenging tasks, has good language development, can communicate well, listens to instructions and is attentive." Those children who enter school without these basic social and emotional competencies are not ready to learn, according to the report, and are less likely to be successful in the early years of school and may face a cascade of behavioral, emotional and academic problems stretching into adulthood.

"Now we can identify students at risk," Huffman said, "but we can also instruct parents of young kids to invest energy in developing these early relationships -- they're vital to the development of social and emotional competence and will have power in determining how their kids do. Investing in social relationships with your children is at least as helpful as drilling them in their A-B-Cs."

The second paper in the report, authored by Doreen Cavanaugh, PhD, of Brandeis University, tracks the federal government's substantial investment, through a variety of programs, in the lives of American children. The State Children's Health Insurance Program, the expanded Medicaid program and Head Start services along with demonstration programs such as Starting Early Starting Smart, are cited as at least tangentially benefiting a child's social and emotional school readiness. But the report also cites implementation problems in numerous programs. For instance, Head Start (which probably targets most directly school readiness) reaches only 50 percent of its eligible population and Early Head Start reaches only 2 percent. In addition, half of the states no longer guarantee childcare subsidies to welfare families. The report concludes that while the federal government is investing substantial resources to improve the health and well-being of young children, a patchwork system of care is being created where practice and research need to be more interwoven.

The complete papers, commissioned by the Child Mental Health Foundations and Agencies Network (FAN), are available in the book, Off to a Good Start: Research on the Risk Factors for Early School Problems and Selected Federal Policies Affecting Children's Social and Emotional Development and Their Readiness for School. Both the book and the summary monograph are available through the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Public Inquiries Branch at (301) 443-4513 or on the Internet at . SR